Every time I have to put on my extrovert hat, I am reminded first that it does not fit well, and second that I do not, in fact, own an extrovert hat.
You come to a cliff. Here is the edge, where the wind whips at your body, and everything beneath you is impossibly tiny. A single movement of your foot, a slight lean of your body weight, and you could throw yourself right over. One simple movement.
But you wouldn’t actually jump, right?
That’s how I feel about making phone calls. Self-preservation determines that I wouldn’t take the last step, and I won’t hit the call button either, whether or not both of those things are logical.
Five years ago, I posted “A Very Small Portion of the Social Anxiety Flowchart for Dealing with Phone Calls Badly.” Inexplicably, it’s become one of the more popular posts on my website.
In truth, the small corner of that flowchart isn’t even what it says it is; I hadn’t yet created the full flowchart at the time I posted about it. I added fake boxes to the edge and faded them out to give the illusion of more flowchart beyond.
If you look at the full, uncropped version of that chart in my graphics program, one of the fake boxes reads:
Thng thing thing thing but an axe
thing thing thing but the only sad
But it’s positioned so that the only full words you see are “axe” and “sad.”
The other reads:
Screw that, this is America,
and I’m not just going to do
something so ridiculous as to
But it’s positioned so that the only visible part is: “Screw that, this is America.”
My phone call anxiety hasn’t improved in the five years since the original post. I have an office job now, one with Microsoft Everything and Calibri Everything and spreadsheets for which I can choose unnecessary color schemes. There is also a small black phone with no caller ID and my own extension and sometimes, on a bad day, a phone call that I can’t divert into an email exchange instead.
Exposure therapy is a thing, so my theory went that, in being exposed to phone calls, their effects would blunt over time, and they would no longer be the cliff I can’t jump off.
That… kind of happened. I am exactly as terrified of most phone calls as I’ve ever been, but I deal with my work calls without too much drama or figurative nail-biting.
And as for my non-work phone calls…
(imagine the haggard, stumbling man from the beginning of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, coming close to announce…)
The Social Anxiety Flowchart for Dealing with Phone Calls Badly
About two months ago, I took a 5×8 index card, wrote “Onerous Health To-do” at the top, and divided up sections for my primary care, ob-gyn, and therapy appointments, the ones I’ve been putting off scheduling for eight, one, and two years, respectively. On this, I wrote every phone call I needed to make, and every task that preceded those phone calls. Then I made the mistake of doing the same for my partner so we could both tackle everything in a single day and move on with our lives.
Although his phone call anxiety is less severe than mine, this still resulted in both of us procrastinating for another six weeks. We broke out of the cycle only when my partner told his friend to call him on a Friday morning to remind him to remind me to do the thing.
What no productivity system in the world will tell you is that it can’t help you with anxiety over a task.
You can break up a task into next actions. You can rephrase it to use an action verb. You can put it on an @Home or @Phone list. You can choose it as one of your three must-do, priority tasks of the day. You can migrate it to another page in your bullet journal. And if you have anxiety over that task, you’re going to keep migrating it, keep rewriting it, and keep finessing it.
Those are the steps you take by the edge of the cliff because you don’t want to take the one step that matters: hitting the call button. Eventually, the task before every undone task is “deal with the anxiety I have over this task,” because of course it’s best to deal with the root problem of something.
Only now you have months of therapy before you can switch your primary care doctor, and you can’t make the phone call to get into the therapy because you wouldn’t jump off a cliff, would you? WOULD YOU?
That day we finally made the phone calls, I assumed that kicking myself off the cliff would result in a rush of anxiety, but that my bravery would ultimately be rewarded with medical appointments that I don’t especially want to attend.
Instead, I learned that my health insurance’s website is the real-life equivalent of a Liars and Knights puzzle. One always lies, and the other always tells the truth. The one that always lies is the website. Between that, busy signals, and voicemails, I tackled everything on my Onerous Health To-Do list, and still got nowhere.
I’m sure there’s a life lesson in there somewhere. Maybe it’s about perseverance. Maybe it’s about bravery. Or nihilism. Or next actions. I’m not sure. All I know is that I’ve climbed back to the top of the cliff, the fat green circle at the start of the flowchart, and it feels exactly the same here.
*Figuratively, because I kicked my life-long nail-biting habit during the swine flu outbreak of 2009. Now, nail-biting, mine or others, would probably destroy me. Thanks, OCD.
For more than a month, I’ve been trying to answer the question of whether or not 2019 was a good year. I’m not ready to touch whether or not the 2010s were a good decade. This was the fourth time in my life I’ve watched one decade change into another, and the fact that I’m aging is hitting me hard lately. But a year? I can handle that.
Writing-wise, I kicked ass this year. I relaunched this blog (to no fanfare, as I don’t fanfare well), and I’ve been working diligently on Stars Fall Out. I came out of the combined writing slump of 2017 (anxiety) and 2018 (baby).
Despite this having been my worst mental health year since I was diagnosed in 2012, my writing hasn’t been stomped on by my anxiety the way it was in the past. I have a toddler, and so many weeks, I didn’t write as much as I wanted. Still, 2019 is the most consistent I’ve ever been.
I had a string of bad haircuts, culminating in me giving in and getting a professional haircut for the first time in three years. I’m still pro diy haircuts, but this year was one botched experiment after another.
I lost two aunts and a great aunt. As a result, I’ve put more thought into my own death than I probably have before.
Don’t embalm me. Put me in a simple box, and let people write and draw on the box. Plant a tree over me.
I made less art and went on fewer adventures than I wanted.
It’s no surprise to me that they’ve both been weak; I’ve long considered art and adventures to be two sides of the same coin; one is the input, the other is the output.
My writing is a form of art, and that went well. But there’s only so much to pull out without putting something back in. I miss sketching, watercolor, collage. I miss going to new coffee shops and cemetaries and turning down intriguing roads.
The exception to not having many adventures were the ones I took with my toddler. She loves Dunkin Donuts, but I don’t know how many times one can go to Dunkin and still count it as an adventure.
When I try to figure out what 2019 was, I keep thinking about what turned out to be my flagship anxiety problem. It started when I paid off my car earlier this year.
Specifically, I paid it off a year and a half early to save more money in the long run, including on my insurance.
I was supposed to follow up by letting my insurance know that I had done this, which would give me full control over my policy again so I could choose cheaper coverage options, thus saving myself $200 per year.
This was a smart plan, but I can’t handle phone calls, and I didn’t do it. Reasons and excuses rolled one into the other, snowballing for weeks and then months. Knowing better isn’t doing better.
Around this time, the trichotillomania I’ve dealt with since my teens hit me the worst its ever done. Every so often, I’ll pull out eyebrow hairs while reading or thinking. I don’t typically notice until my thumb and forefinger come into view with five or six hairs pinched between them. I usually have months between episodes, so it hasn’t been too big a deal.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I haven’t had my eyebrows in their entirety for the same amount of time that I’ve been procrastinating on this call.
My social skills have seemingly deteriorated, which makes sense because assuming they are actually a skill and not a talent, one would have to practice to keep them sharp. It’s been a bad year for social anxiety, and I haven’t done well at keeping in touch with people. Low key texts to friends get wrapped up in the bigger anxieties of every other correspondence-related task I’m putting off. Like that phone call.
So back to that. For ten months, I assumed I had to make a call. For anything important, it’s always a call. No matter that we’ve advanced technologically to the point where that shouldn’t be the case. It’s always a damn phone call.
But then I went on to my insurance’s website in a fit of desperation, knowing it was a waste of time and I wouldn’t find anything. Instead, I learned that I can change my policy online. And because it made me feel like I was doing something, I filled out a contact form and asked if there were any way to have the lien removed from my policy electronically.
I knew this wouldn’t be possible. I knew they would tell me to call.
Instead, six hours later, I got an email that said it would be taken care of.
AFTER TEN MONTHS. That was it.
I’d love to see if my eyebrows grow back.
I couldn’t tell you why I started a list with every single year of my life and tried to label each year with a single word.
- 2009 The Year of Depression.
- 2015 The Year of Change
- 2017 The Year of Pregnancy
- 2018 The Year of the Baby
I’ve only managed to label six years of my life, and those ones came to me easily. The others bleed together. Nothing clearly demarcates them except for the numbers we put on calendars.
I remember twenty years ago, in 1999, the odd precariousness of realizing that all four numbers would be wiped away. 2000 would be a new, different world. This is both true and untrue of every new year that comes.
A few weeks ago, I asked my partner if he thought 2019 had been a good year. His response? A series of quizzical noises.
And so it came to be that 2019 was The Year of the Mixed Bag. I don’t know if time and introspection will turn that into the official label, but it’s true for now.
The president of the college where I work and the governor of the state were supposed to come through my office today. One of my first thoughts when I heard they would be coming was basically, “I’d better make sure to have my best playlist on.”
BECAUSE THEY ARE IMPORTANT PEOPLE.
And because they would notice that? Sure. Sure, they would.
They turned out not to be the actual visitors, but I still think putting on your best playlist is good etiquette.
Out in the world are others who have experienced the same social annoyances I have, like being asked if I’m sure I don’t want any dessert or being told to smile. The great proliferation of internet blogs almost universally ensures that I can find those people, learn from them, and feel less alone. I can realize why something bothered me, see how someone else solved it, or see how they chose to accept it. But there’s one social problem I’ve never seen anyone else write about.
What do you do when you’re a Kristin who goes by Kris, and others revert your name to Kristin the instant you find yourself in a grouping with a Christopher who goes by the phonetically identical Chris, supposedly to avoid confusion? What do you do when others refuse to use your chosen name the instant someone who ranks higher in the patriarchy shows up?
As a child, I signed all my drawings KRIS, written in capital letters that took up the entire back of the paper. I knew Kris was my name before I knew Kristin was. One day, at either daycare or Sunday school, I drew my picture, flipped it over, and wrote KRIS in my enormous, wavering crayon lines. When I took it home at the end of the day, I noticed the teacher had written “Kristin” in the upper right corner, in tiny, ballpoint penmanship.
Kristin is my full name. Kris is my name. But after that, I knew to go by Kristin at school.
Fifth grade was a year that even now, I remember being one of the best in my life. I had lived an entire decade, made it to the top of the school, and collected enough Lisa Frank stickers to trade with my best friends, who were all in the same class as me that year. High on the power of a ten-year-old, I took a bold stand: I wrote “Kris” at the top of a worksheet. Then I did it again. I didn’t stop
I asked the friends who didn’t already call me Kris if they could do so.
One of them told me, “I can’t call you Kris. It’s a boy’s name.”
This, of course, is not actually true. It’s not even uncommon for Christines,
My name was short and boyish, and I wasn’t supposed to use it. I was like Nancy Drew’s friend George. And we all know that George is the awesome friend because no one remembers the other one.
I was Kris.
I’ve wondered how no one else on this internet has this problem, or at least how no one has written about it. Or if they have written about it, why it’s been so hard for me to find.
There are several conditions that must be in place for the Kris problem to occur. You need:
- A female first name with
- a gender-neutral nickname, which
- is actually used by males as well, and
- is common enough that males and females (and those of varying gender identities) will encounter each other.
Which is to say, I thought that loads of people must have experienced this, but it may not be a common problem at all. Most other Kristins I’ve met go by Kristin. Who else has this problem? Jessicas who go by Jess? Danielles who go by Dan? Samanthas who go by Sam? I’ve only known one female Dan and one male Sam. But I’ve known loads of Chrises.
Here’s a scenario I’ve experienced repeatedly in group settings:
“I’m Kris too.”
“Uh-oh, there’s another Kris.”
At this point, the meddling Josh or Ashley will propose a solution before a problem even comes up: “Well, you can just go by Kristin.” I don’t know why it falls to the Meddling Ashley to do this, but that’s the pattern. It’s never the other Chris
This has happened at school, at more than one job, at family gatherings, and with friends. It’s happened even when my presence in a group predates the other Chris. Wherever there are Chrises, this has happened to me. The irony isn’t lost on me: I kept my name when I got married, but I’m constantly giving up my name.
Aside from my partner, no one is really aware that this happens. It’s a textbook example of a micro-aggression.
And aside from my boldness in fifth grade, it took me years to get to the point at which I decided to casually, if the moment was right, ask for people to call me Kris after they had already been calling me Kristin for quite some time.
I’m introverted and non-confrontational, so even something like “Hey, can you call me Kris? I’d really prefer it.” felt like a huge stand.
But my own personal, inner victory, the fact that I had asked at all, has most often been swept away by the responses I get. The typical response is for my request to be ignored
I don’t hate the name
But the more I’m called Kristin after requesting Kris, the more the name irritates me. That’s because it’s not about the name itself; it’s about the blatant disregard, sometimes after repeated requests, that this is not what I want to be called. It’s someone talking to me while looking into another’s eyes. It’s being smeared like so much dry erase marker across a board.
It’s much rarer for anyone to put in the effort to change what they had been calling me. But when someone does make the effort, even if I’m still Kristin about half the time, the feeling of being smeared disappears, replaced by the warmth and knowledge that I have been seen and heard.
When I worked occasional Thursday mornings at my old security job, I would come in as the sun rose. An hour later, a short, slim woman with sharp eyebrows would come in to help patients. A former librarian, she stored baggies of peanut butter sandwiches in her glove compartment the way others do granola bars.
Her name was Chris.
A few hours after that, another woman would come in. She was also small, with glasses and bobbed hair, and a sort of jovial matter-of-factness about her.
Her name? Also Chris. Now there were three of us.
We compared root names: two Christines and a Kristin. No one said, “Maybe you should go by Kristin,” or “You should go by Christine.” We made cheesy jokes about being a club, and laughed when someone said “Chris,” and three people turned around.
Never, in any situation with multiple female Krises and Chrises, has a Meddling Josh proposed that someone stop going by Kris.
We simply deal with any small confusions that arise
I’ve observed in groups with two males of the same name that it isn’t an issue there either. Everyone gets used to Mike and
Here are some measures I’ve learned to take:
- Introduce myself as Kris. Not even, “Hi, I’m Kristin. I go by Kris.” People who don’t know the name Kristin don’t call me by it.
- Have my partner be a spotter, pointedly refer to me as Kris, and correct people.
- Don’t assume that anything is a big enough hint. Don’t assume that using my preferred name online is a big enough hint. When I finally joined Facebook, I thought that using the handle “Kris Bowser” would be a hint. I thought that owning krisbowser.com would be a hint. But I’m sensitive to this, and apparently, it’s not a big enough hint.
- Don’t even assume that setting your chosen name in 64-point Garamond on your wedding invitations–normally a full name kind of space–will be a big enough hint.
But I’ve learned to turn those outwards too:
- Pay attention. Call people by the name they introduce themselves as.
- Take a hint. Don’t assume that someone is typing their name a certain way for no real reason–assume it was a choice.
- If someone asks to be called another name, give it a shot. Try. Don’t say I’m too used to the first
name,as if I’ve never had to adapt to something in your life before.
- Don’t assume a name is someone’s preference just because I hear others using it. Ask.
And don’t assume it’s not a big deal. You don’t know how strongly someone else holds their name preference, what it signifies, or how it empowers them.
Self-care is walking away to use the bathroom when you’re in a conversation you can’t escape, even if the other person is still talking.